Jun 122020
 

Full Albums features covers of every track off a classic album. Got an idea for a future pick? Leave a note in the comments!

Car Wheels on a Gravel Road

Beginning around 1990, a major mountain range began forming along the fault lines where country music, punk-influenced rock, and traditional folk music meet. Call it the Alt-Country range, or the Roots/Americana mountains, or whatever you like. The range includes material from then-new artists like Uncle Tupelo (and its offshoots, Son Volt and Wilco), and the work of not-so-new figures, Steve Earle and Townes Van Zandt among them. Bedrock that was long covered over–songs by the Carter Family and the Stanley Brothers, say–got brought to the surface again and mixed in with the new. The formative period for Alt-Country ended by 2000 or so, with the final uplift being the soundtrack to O Brother Where Art Thou, a project that help usher southern-style folk music beyond certain enclaves in Austin and Nashville.

Looking back, most would agree that among the most prominent peaks in the entire mountain range is Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. The album is over 20 years old, but time doesn’t wear it down, and in the rear view mirror it still looms large. Let’s pull over to admire the achievement.
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Jun 012020
 

Some covers are more equal than others. Good, Better, Best looks at three covers and decides who takes home the gold, the silver, and the bronze.

son house and friends

The biography of delta blues musician Son House reads like an old blues song, composed of familiar fabrics borrowed from others, a patchwork quilt of “bluesman” tropes. See if you’ve seen these patterns before:

  • He made his first recordings in 1930, quickly and under shabby conditions. They didn’t sell.
  • He became a street preacher, and rejected the blues as “the devil’s music.”
  • He served time in Mississippi’s Parchment Farm penitentiary (on charges related to a shootout in a juke joint).
  • He migrated north along the Mississippi to escape farm labor and to find an industrial job (working in an East St. Louis steel plant for a time).
  • Field recordings of his songs were captured by Alan Lomax in 1941 and ‘42, becoming part of the Library of Congress folk song collection. (Congress stopped funding folk song collection in 1942, not that this stopped Lomax.) Thereafter House became a railroad porter and quit music.
  • He was rediscovered by young white audiences in the early ’60s and lured back into a music career.
  • He played the Newport Folk Festival in ‘64, gigged around Europe and North America, and wrote new songs and issued new recordings until ill health sidelined him once again.

Although those early Son House recordings didn’t sell, they influenced younger players like Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, as did Son House himself, on a personal level. Howlin’ Wolf was yet another House protege of importance.

The Son House song we turn to today, “Death Letter,” doesn’t stem from his early days, but from his rediscovery period, specifically the 1965 sessions for Columbia. As often is true with folk music, the song’s actual history is a little murky. A couple of its verses appear on the 1930 song “My Black Mama, Part II.” The Lomax recordings from the ’40s also include snatches of the lyrics, but not the song itself. Then there’s the fact that Son House never established the definitive version; he performed the song extensively after his rediscovery, but rarely played the same set of verses.

Any artist who covers the song in his wake is left to draw from their favorite verses–or repeat the ones they know from the recording they happen to know. And of course they are free to bend the music itself to suit their mood. The three artists presented here don’t just change things up, they each make something distinctive from the commonplace blues progression that forms the song’s backbone.
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Apr 062020
 
tallest man jesus etc

“Jesus Etc.” is one of the catchier tracks from Wilco’s (in)famous Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. YHF was the album which got them expelled from their label, only to be streamed free on the internet by the band and become a consensus pick for best album of 2001 (and, finally, land them at another label that was part of the same parent label that kicked them out in the first place!). The song has remained a staple of their live shows for years and is a fan favourite. Continue reading »

Apr 012020
 
quarantine covers

As we all remain stuck inside, those of us with musical talent have been performing tons of live streams online. Some streams vanish into the ether as soon as they finish, but many remain archived online. And many include covers.

Last week we rounded up a batch of the best, and today we round up another. There are far too many happening to make any claims to a definitive list. These are just some that caught my ear. What other live-from-home covers have you enjoyed? Share some more recommendations for us all in the comments! Continue reading »

Jan 312018
 
best cover songs january

At the end of every year, we work for weeks curating our annual Best of the Year list (here’s last year’s). We’re monitoring what comes out all year though, so this month I thought: why wait? Here’s a more impulsive and spontaneous list, some songs we’ve written about already and others we didn’t get to. Just some great covers that stood out as the month comes to a close. Continue reading »

Jan 112018
 
tallest man on earth covers

“When We Were Young,” Adele’s second single off 25, peaked at #14 on the pop charts. Amazing by most artists’ standards, but middling by hers (particularly following “Hello” topping every chart in existence). But as with so many of her songs before it, it’s lived on well past its chart run through endless covers. The latest, and maybe greatest, comes from Sweden’s The Tallest Man on Earth.

He performed it on the Swedish game show På Spåre, backed by local pop group Augustifamiljen. It’s a bigger and more lavish production than most of Kristian Matsson’s covers, which tend more towards fingerpicked folk tunes. But he sells it perfectly, finding a middle ground between his singer-songwriter sensibilities and Adele’s bigger soul belting. Continue reading »